Coming Out of Lockdown and Dealing with Negative Emotions

(image: Pixabay – Maximiliano Estevez)

Tell me what you fear, and I will tell you what has happened to you’

Donald W. Winnicott (1896-1971)

Evolution is arranged so that a species survives, not so that it will be happy while it survives.’

Albert Ellis (1913-2007)

So how are you feeling? The general lockdown has ended, and we are being encouraged to resume ‘normal’ life. But perhaps things feel far from normal. When the lockdown happened, it seemed to happen overnight. We were given clarity as to what was expected of us: ‘Stay home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’. For some there was a sense of community and collegiality – ‘we are all in this together’. Checking in on people. Neighbours chatting over the garden fence for the first time in ages. However, for others the lockdown meant isolation, loneliness, fear – and in some cases – violence/abuse and death.

Whatever your experience, the common thread for all of us is uncertainty. Coronavirus proved that life could turn on a dime. Whatever measures we had put in place to ensure our personal security and safety did not protect us from feeling uncertain – and in some cases, stressed, overwhelmed and anxious.

So how are you feeling right now? If your reply is ‘I’m OK’ – what does this mean for you? There can be a tendency to label negative emotions as bad and to push them away. However, this can undermine our ability to deal with the world as it is, and not how we would wish it to be. By understanding how we feel – and labelling it correctly, we can more readily deal with our emotions, thereby improving our resilience and our ability to cope when life is difficult and uncertain. As Donald Winnicott implies in his quotation above – the thing we most fear is invariably the thing that has already happened to us. But whatever that is, even if the same thing happens again, it may be extremely tough, but it will not be exactly the same, because we have already gone through it and have come out the other side. What is important is how we process the experience and our emotions. Understanding what we have come to learn about ourselves.

Albert Ellis, the pioneer of Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy, promoted the idea of Emotional Responsibility. He famously stated that ‘We disturb ourselves through not accepting the reality of our situation’. Therefore, rather than buying into positive thinking e.g. ‘Cheer up’, ‘Look on the bright side’ etc. he put forward the idea of ‘Healthy Thinking’. Taking responsibility for our emotions through not avoiding negative emotions (e.g. anxiety, depression, guilt, hurt etc.) but by understanding the irrational thinking and behaviours that inform them. Then moving towards their healthier alternatives (e.g. concern, sadness, remorse, disappointment etc.) which promote constructive, rational, and flexible thinking and behaviour. Hopefully enabling us to achieve our goals and desires.

At the heart of this is the ability to know what we have control of, e.g. our own actions and thoughts; what we have partial control of (or what we can influence), e.g. some decisions; and what we have no control over, e.g. Coronavirus; other people’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

All too often we berate ourselves, and others, for not being perfect. We can experience pressure to rate ourselves and gain self-worth through things that are external to us e.g. how much money we have, our job, where we live, our relationship status, our lifestyle etc. But of course, this is a recipe for disaster as many of these things can change very quickly (as the Coronavirus epidemic has shown us). It is important that we treat ourselves with kindness and compassion whenever things are not going well. We live in an uncertain world; we make mistakes and many things are out of our control. To accept the reality that we are imperfect, fallible people trying to do the best we can – and are worthwhile nonetheless. If we accept this about ourselves then we are more able to accept this in others. And (to coin another Winnicott phrase) – rather than being perfect, isn’t it important simply to be ‘good enough’?